What Is It About Pumped Up Kicks?

I can always tell when a song has caught the imagination of a lot of people because I start to hear about it from my guitar students.  It doesn’t even have to be a guitar song per se, but as soon as my students begin referring to it, especially if the students are of different ages, it piques my interest.

Such was the case with Pumped Up Kicks by Foster The People.  It’s a very simple song, musically, with a little bass/guitar riff repeating through most of the song and the same four-chord progression.  For simplicity’s sake, I have the guitar capo’d on the 1st fret so my beginner students can play it using Em, D, G and A, one measure per chord.  The bass riff extends over that four-chord progression as well, but you can also play it on guitar, as some of my more advanced students like to do.

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Amy Joins The 27 Club

Although a lot of people could see it coming, the death of Amy Winehouse was still a heck of a shock to many not wanting to believe that her addictions were so bad that they would ultimately kill her.  She was another one of those bright stars who burned herself out at a shocking rate, adding herself to the infamous 27 Club along with the likes of Kurt Cobain, Jim Hendrix and Janis Joplin, among others.

Amy Winehouse at Eurockéennes de Belfort (Fest...
Image via Wikipedia

These were obviously talented people, musical trend-setters who’s influence in the musical world was undeniable.  Some might argue that they had yet to even show us their best work, and maybe that’s true.  Having experienced relationships with musicians all my life, I can certainly attest to one thing:  a lot of the really talented ones have a side to their personality that has a desire to go right to the edge.  You might consider them “musical thrill seekers”.  And thrill seekers tend to be that way in more than one area of their lives.  Their boundaries are almost non-existent, and that’s what makes them susceptible to addictions to hard drugs and other extreme behaviour.
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Taylor Swift, Your Songs Give Me Earworms!

From Wikipedia: “Earworm, a loan translation of the German Ohrwurm, is a portion of a song or other music that repeats compulsively within one’s mind, put colloquially as ‘music being stuck in one’s head.’ ”

Taylor Swift performing at the Cavendish Beach...
Image via Wikipedia

According to statistics, 98% of us get earworms at one point or another. They apparently last longer in women, and annoy them more :-). I would have to say that I suffer from earworms moreso because I’m always listening to music more intensively when trying to figure out chords, licks and lyrics for my guitar students. And I’d have to say that Taylor Swift tops my list of earworm-causing songs. Bad, you say? Actually, not at all.

If you’re a songwriter, the earworm is your friend! You want parts of your song to stick in people’s heads, the longer the better. Hooks are often a cause of earworms. Do you remember James Blunt’s song “You’re Beautiful”? That earworm drove me nuts for days after I worked it out for a student. Blunt repeats that phrase over and over in the chorus and it was a huge hit for him. No wonder!

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Song Critique – Rolling In The Deep by Adele

My exposure to new songs often comes from my guitar students requesting them for their lessons.  And that was how I first heard Adele’s song “Rolling In The Deep” which is off her latest album “21”. Listen to clips and/or purchase here:

I first wanted to understand the phrase “rolling in the deep” so I did some research online to see if that might be an idiom or local expression, perhaps in the UK where Adele is from. What I found was a reference in Rolling Stone from an interview where she describes what she meant by it:

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The Use of Contrast in Songwriting

Contrast, as defined in the dictionary, is: To set in opposition in order to show or emphasize differences. Black and white are two contrasting “shades” (they’re not colours!) and can be used as a visual way to describe contrast in songwriting.

Black and White "Model" Cupcakes
Image by clevercupcakes via Flickr

When you’re first writing a song (and I ALWAYS emphasize this!), you are not thinking about technique or creating dynamics, tension or contrast…you are simply expressing something in its raw form. Many songwriters never get beyond this raw state, never develop their writing or learn to polish their songs, and the lack of contrast is often a result. If absolutely everything in a room was white, how boring would that be? This is what songwriters who are just starting out don’t necessarily recognize in their own songwriting.

So what exactly IS contrast in songwriting? Well, it can be achieved in different ways. If your song has verses and a chorus, contrast may be created between those song parts. For example, the verses might have a melody in a lower range, and the chorus in a higher range. Another way to achieve contrast would be a different chord progression in the chorus as compared to the verse. It can be a subtle as starting the chorus with a different chord than the verses start with. Contrast doesn’t have to be “in your face”, it simply creates a feeling of freshness between the parts of a song. A bridge can be a really effective contrast. You’ve set your listener up, starting them off with a verse and chorus, another verse and chorus, and now you want to give them a breather, so you create a bridge.

So, melody and chord progressions can be used to create contrast, what about lyrics?  The most subtle lyrical contrast would be in terms of the subject by changing the point of view or creating a different idea (but not too different!) between two parts of a song.  A very simple example would be where the verses are in the first and second person (I, me, my and you), and the chorus being in the third person (she, he, they).

But a broader and more effective contrast would be to actually change the form of the song by changing the rhyme scheme or the length of lines and the meter.  You see this happening most of the time between a verse and a chorus;  the verse has its own rhyme scheme and meter and the chorus changes to another set.

Contrast can also be created in the production of the song where the instrumentation changes between different parts.  This has less to do with the songwriting, but if your song is missing some contrast or the contrast is not strong enough, adding or changing instruments in the production and recording phase can enhance the parts so they stand out a little more separately from each other.  What often happens with drums in a chorus, for instance, is that the rhythm stays more or less the same, but cymbals (or what they call a “ride”) are added.  Drums also accent a coming change when they do small fills just beforehand.

Drums are only one example of the use of contrast in production, other instruments like strings can also be effective in signifying a different part of a song.  But for the most part, you want to be able to create contrast in the writing itself so you don’t have to rely on production to do it for you.

Contrast is something that be the difference between your audience being continuously drawn into a song and putting them to sleep! Listen to one of your favourite songs and see if you can spot what they do to create contrast. And then listen to one of your own songs to determine if you are creating enough contrast to keep it interesting!


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